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best communications practices

A New Look at “Chaos is Our Brand” in Light of the Coronavirus Crisis

When Audacia Strategies CEO, Katy Herr, originally taped this interview with Dan Doran, CEO of Quantive, for his podcast The Deal—Unscripted, we had no idea just how relevant it would be now during the current crisis. A year later, we are living a case study in crisis communication and thought it was a good time to revisit some of the takeaways about best communications practices from that conversation.

1. Don’t Wait to Create a Strategy for Best Communications Practices

This recommendation applies as much to a wide-spread crisis situation like the Coronavirus pandemic as it does to a big company transition like a merger or acquisition. It never pays to procrastinate on creating a communications strategy.

If you find yourself without a clear strategy, you’re likely feeling the pain acutely in this moment. As far as we know, no one has invented a time machine, but there are some things you can do to develop a stop gap strategy:

  • Stay calm and present as you weigh your options.
  • Figure out who needs to hear from you, when.
  • Develop straightforward messaging that doesn’t promise more than you can deliver.
  • Make sure you have a designated team with assigned roles to streamline communications.

For more ideas, check out 5 Lessons from our Crisis Communications Playbook

Many of our clients contact us when they’re facing one of two situations: times of crisis or times of transformation—hence our unofficial tagline: “chaos is our brand.” This makes a lot of sense, but too often what we find is that if an organization hesitates to develop best communications practices and a communications strategy early enough, things can go off the rails quickly. 

At the risk of sounding too sales-y and mindful of the many hardships experienced during this time, here are a few of the benefits of using an outside communications firm:

  • An outside set of eyes gives you transaction experience, critical perspective, and unbiased advice when communicating your message to the outside world.
  • An outside firm is in a good position to place your organization in a broader context (i.e., the competitive set, the market, and your financial stakeholders), while you focus on running day-to-day internal operations.
  • An outside firm isn’t influenced by the “groupthink” or silo-ed communications that can be an obstacle to projecting the strongest public image.

Whether or not your organization ultimately decides to enlist the help of a firm like Audacia Strategies during this crisis or the next one, the most important thing you can do is start strategizing ASAP.

2. Think About Who Your Stakeholders Are 

In this moment of uncertainty, you are right to worry about accidentally leaving stakeholders off of your list of communications. One of the first rules of communications is to control the narrative. But if you hesitate to reach out to stakeholders or skimp on the stakeholder analysis, this is precisely the risk you take.

Remember that at its core communications is about storytelling. What is the best story you can tell to a particular set of stakeholders? Suppose the governor in your state has decided your industry is among those allowed to reopen, but you disagree with the reopen policy for your business. Your best bet is to be honest with your employees, customers, and investors. State your case and speak your truth.

Depending on whether you are a publicly or privately held company, stakeholders could include any or all of the following sets:

  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Financial stakeholders: 
    • Public debt holders and ratings agencies
    • Private equity companies and banks
    • Investors or shareholders
  • Community partners
  • Contributors (for non-profit organizations)
  • Business partners and service providers
  • Strategic partners
  • Government regulators and political community (local, state and federal) 
  • Media and industry influencers

3. Understand the Difference Between Marketing and Communications

This is especially important now when best communications practices may require a very light touch. If you think you can “get by” using your internal marketing department to craft crisis communications, you may want to reconsider. 

Marketing and strategic communications are different tools. Whereas marketing primarily focuses on telling the story of how your product or service will help your target customers, strategic communications partners can knit together the entirety of the business story to give investors and other stakeholders a comprehensive picture. As the experts in helping clients weather chaos, we have developed best practices over many transactions, crises, and change events.

Now is the time to ask big picture questions about how your market may respond to this crisis, how resources should be optimally redirected, and how investors, customers and employees should be engaged throughout. This is a great time to consider what has changed for your customers and employees and what you can offer as we begin to feel our way through life post-lockdown.

4. M&A Tips and Tricks

As we hopefully begin to see COVID-19 infection rates peak over the next several weeks and markets start to stabilize, many predict that M&A (mergers and acquisitions) will start to pick up in certain industries. This is, of course, assuming lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t place a moratorium on big mergers—a conversation we’ll be monitoring closely.

There are still a lot of unknowns here, but if a merger is in your future, we work with corporate development teams, in-house financial teams, lawyers, and investment bankers helping them think through the market and storytelling from an M&A perspective. At its core, M&A is about risk, the ability to manage risk, and telling the story of how the acquisition fits into your broader business strategy and culture.

For example, if you’ve been working on a deal that has been in the preparation stages for months, should you call it off or push forward to completion? One thing is for sure: for companies that have built a healthy balance sheet during the economic boom of the past ten years, declining valuations create opportunities to pursue deals that create long-term value. While we can’t help you decide whether to hold or fold, we can help you communicate your decision.

Finally, we’ll leave you with some pitfalls and opportunities to consider when it comes to best communications practices during a merger or acquisition: 

M&A Pitfalls:

  • Companies that overpay: We have another blog post dedicated to this topic. Suffice it to say, if you overpay for an acquisition, it can create credibility issues with your investors, your Board of Directors, your employees…the list goes on. Negotiations can get emotional quickly but consider that the business strategy will have to support the valuation.
  • Cultural fit failure: We’ve seen it happen: a small start-up firm develops an amazing technology and gets bought by a huge firm looking to prove it’s innovative and “hip.” Then, within a year, all the original start up employees are gone. Avoid this kind of cultural disconnect by having an air-tight integration strategy from the beginning. Make sure you are walking your walk, so you can deliver on what you’re promising. (Pssst! Hot tip: Audacia Strategies has a new service rolling out to help avoid just this problem. Make sure you’re signed up to be among the first to get the details!)

M&A Opportunities:

  • Integration is key: The best M&A success stories are those where the merging leadership teams think about integration all the way along. When companies have a successful communications strategy that includes communicating the big vision well for both internal and external audiences, the proof is in the stakeholders’ response.
  • Customers see opportunities: Ideally, when two companies merge, customers say “this is exactly what I needed.” Rather than seeking out two solutions, for example, the customer gets one-stop-shopping from the new hybrid. It’s your job to help communicate this feeling across your stakeholder groups.
  • Employees see opportunities: And if you can also pull off a merger where employees in both companies see the transformation as good for their own careers, you’ve developed a winning communications strategy. Often employees of the smaller firm may feel anxious about being acquired. But if you can honestly demonstrate opportunities for career mobility, earnings potential, and other benefits of working for a larger company, it will go a long way toward easing transition tensions.

The above is only a sampling of the insights and best communications practices gained from Dan and Katy’s conversation. You can watch and listen to the 30-minute interview in its entirety, here

As everyone keeps saying, this crisis is unprecedented. Still, there is something to be said for working with a team that faces down chaos and keeps walking through the fire. We are here to help you figure out your next step and keep you moving forward. If you want to talk, we’re ready to strategize about your best next steps. 

Photo credit: https://www.123rf.com/profile_deagreez

business communications

The 7 Deadly Sins of Business Communications: How to Stay Out of the Marketing Rat Race

For brands—as with celebrities, politicians, and CEOs—scandals and PR nightmares, like the Airbnb scam that recently came to light, are nearly impossible to hide from today’s connected consumers. As a result, the best approach to business communications is operating with transparency and trust.

This poses a challenge for marketers: how to navigate the trends, meet customers where they are, and ensure the messages being communicated are genuine and in alignment with their brand’s core values. The challenge is all the more difficult when we consider marketing as an all-out arms race where brands compete to showcase their products and services. 

Yes, it’s easy to get caught up in the rat race (with apologies for the mixed metaphor). So, let’s talk about how to stay out of it. The rewards will be waiting for you. When firms make an effort to avoid the seven deadly sins of business communications below, they often find customers do the marketing for them.

1. Pride – Lack of consideration for or understanding of your audience

We all know people who make everything all about themselves. When pride reveals itself in an individual, we distance ourselves from the individual. When pride reveals itself in a business, we tune out completely. 

To avoid the sin of pride in business communications, show your audience that you are listening. Do your research. This is Communications 101. But I get it. When you’re under pressure to respond to a crisis or you need to get your marketing campaign up and running yesterday, it’s tempting to believe that you know best. 

PRO TIP: Remember, the failure to hear your audience could easily spell failure for your firm.

2. Envy – Trying to ‘copy and paste’ another organization’s communications strategy or message because, hey, it worked for them

Whenever we’re developing a communications strategy, it’s natural to draw inspiration from other organizations. But remember that your organization, your stakeholders, and your situation are unique. If you simply borrow from what you see competitors doing, you risk missing out on the authentic connection.

And with all the data available to anyone with a website and a little ingenuity, there’s really no excuse for firms not to attempt some form of targeting and personalization. Of course, you’ll want to use caution here. Personalization can go too far. Make sure you don’t cross the line trading authenticity for ultra-creepy.

PRO TIP: Instead of ‘copy and paste’, try ‘customization and personalization’. 

3. Gluttony – Sometimes too much is just…too much

Strong business communications are direct and to the point. When executives, whether speaking to the internal team or speaking to the public, use extra words, include too many buzzwords, or belabor a point, they take the focus away from the core message. 

PRO TIP: Trim the fat by offering communications coaching or training for those in core leadership positions.

4. Sloth – There are few shortcuts in life (despite the astounding number of promised life “hacks” all over social media)

It’s hard work to step into the shoes of your audience (customers, employees, investors, etc.), to think about what matters to them, and to honestly consider how your message will resonate. But there’s really no getting around doing the hard stuff. 

Also, just because you put a lot of time and effort into building out customer personas, doesn’t mean your ideal customer will stay the same for decades. You need to constantly re-evaluate your message and tweak it for each audience, circumstance, or business goal.

PRO TIP: Good communicators make business communications look easy. But there’s nothing easy about effectively communicating with a variety of audiences.

5. Lust – It’s easy to fall in love with the buzzword of the week, the fancy communications tools, or new social media channels

It’s easy to become enchanted with shiny new things because we’re always looking for ways to take our companies to the next level. Indeed, I’ve referred to some business communications buzzwords (e.g., authenticity, customization, personalization) in this very article. And they can all be useful in some form or fashion, but without the scaffolding of a bigger strategy, they are simply distractions or crutches.

The next time you feel yourself lusting after the latest and greatest, pause and ask yourself: what’s in it for my audience? And, will it help me better engage with my audience? If the answers are ‘nothing’ and ‘no’, you may be leaning on lust to keep from doing the hard work of communicating (see above: Sloth).

PRO TIP: Forget about lust. Fall in love with buzzwords, fancy communications tools, and new social media channels only if you can clearly see how they help you better engage with your audience.

6. Anger – We’ve got a lot of conflict in our communication channels these days

While there is something to be said for playing to the emotions of our audiences to invoke feelings of urgency, anger is not always the most effective way to motivate action or provoke conversation. Generally, anger is more of a monologue than a dialogue and when every communication is perceived as angry, it all sounds the same. Conversation, engagement, and attention work better for long term progress.

Non-profit organizations may especially want to take note here. You can establish a sense of urgency, while opening the door to a path where you can move forward together. It’s important to display your passion for issues and causes you care about, but passion without direction results in lost opportunities. 

PRO TIP: Beware of anger, the sugar high of business communications. It might give you a quick hit, but it will evaporate quickly.

7. Greed – It’s okay to make an ask! But ask yourself who will benefit

It’s perfectly okay and even encouraged for every communication to include a call to action—heck, we all need a good call to action, particularly in business. But when the ask is aligned to the benefit of a few (or perceived to be for the benefit of a few) the conversation falls flat.

Additionally, remember that not every CTA needs to be “buy my stuff.” When you think about generating leads, try thinking in terms of how you can help your customers, rather than how you can get more people to click on your link.

All the SEO and marketing tricks you can buy won’t replace the success that comes from following these three steps:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do
  • When you say you’re going to do it
  • Exactly how you said you would do it

PRO TIP: Business is the ultimate team sport. If the ask doesn’t also provide a “win” or a meaningful trade (of knowledge, services, etc.), then it’s hard to elicit champions for your cause.

As your company grows and you become more successful, business communications will become more complicated. Don’t let success cloud your vision of what’s truly important in your business: your customers and your employees.

If you notice any of these seven deadly sins creeping around your business practices, it might be time for a change. Audacia Strategies is ready to step in. We won’t give you absolution or assign you penance for your sins, but we can put your business communications back on the path to transparency and trust. Let’s Talk!

Photo credit: https://www.canva.com/robertkneschke/

crisis management strategy

Your Crisis Management Strategy When You Need to Walk Through the Fire…and Keep Walking

Your company can’t seem to make money, your executives are constantly in the news for the wrong reasons, and your plane still isn’t flying. Yeah. It’s been a rough few weeks/months/years. 

Recently, I talked about what to do at the onset of a crisis, but what happens if you can’t immediately get a handle on the crisis? What is your crisis management strategy for living through the day-to-day of a crisis that seems to go on forever? The initial response with employees and customers requires getting to the ground truth quickly and relaying as many of the facts as you can, while taking action. 

Some of these same elements continue to be relevant in dealing with the fallout of a long term crisis. But what’s crucial for an effective crisis management strategy is being perceived as a company that is moving forward and not one hoping that maybe after enough time passes, everyone will forgive or at least FORGET. When facing damage from a crisis that just will not die, you need a plan for resolution and rebuilding.

Putting Out the Fire vs. Leading Through the Fire

One of the most challenging tests of a great leader is how they deal with a crisis. To pass this test, it takes two skills: knowing how to put out fires and knowing how to lead through fire. 

Every executive has to deal with surprises and being in business likely means you’ll have to put out some fires eventually. Especially as your company expands, those fires will seem bigger, or at least the potential for fires gets bigger. When it comes to putting out the fire of a PR crisis, the name of the game is regaining control. 

For example, you may remember that back in 2016, after the shooting in San Bernardino, the FBI demanded that Apple build a “backdoor” giving the authorities the ability to circumvent Apple’s data encryption and unlock any iPhone. In response, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, effectively took control of the story writing this letter: ”A Message to Our Customers.” Tim Cook knows how to put out fires.

However, there are times when you cannot expect to turn things around so quickly or the fires you thought you put out actually continue to smolder. In these cases, leaders must develop a crisis management strategy for continuing to lead even through the crisis. 

Here are some tips for moving forward through the fire: 

1. Continue to focus on transparency and the truth.

While it can be tempting to say whatever you believe will finally put an end to this crisis, resist the urge to “whitewash” the truth. Keep in mind that following your gut and making quick, impulsive decisions is not a valid crisis management strategy and won’t likely get you through this crisis any faster. Impulsive decisions often result in a further loss of power.

Instead, you’ve got to slow down. It will be uncomfortable to tell the truth and only the truth. The media, your employees, your stakeholders, and your customers will likely push for more information. This is difficult to deal with, especially day in and day out. But if you haven’t worked out all the details, do not speculate. Remember that you are engaged in a game of chess here—not rock, paper, scissors. 

2. Work with your team to identify how the firm is preparing to resolve the crisis and (hopefully) prevent another in the future. 

One way to relieve the discomfort of having to stick to the facts, when you don’t have many facts to offer, is to take action so that you have more to talk about. Of course, I’m not suggesting you take any random action that comes to mind. Again, impulsive decisions are almost never the right move.

Instead, work closely with your team to come up with new policies and processes that help your company is ready to move forward. If new training would prevent a similar problem in the future, take steps to implement new training programs as part of your crisis management strategy, for instance. Also, consider what would improve both internal and external communications in the future.

For example, Stanford University recently changed their leave of absence policy for students facing a mental health crisis in the wake of a class action lawsuit alleging discrimination. In her message to students, Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Susie Brubaker-Cole, said, “my colleagues and I have learned from our conversations with you, and our campus community is stronger because of your advocacy.” She went on to say, “together, we are making significant progress, and this new policy is a critical component.”

3. Do NOT stop communicating, either internally or externally. 

No matter what crisis management strategy you ultimately choose, remember to continue communicating as much as possible. Hiding away and hoping you can weather the storm without facing questions from your employees or the public will only cause more problems. 

Instead, keep your leadership visible and ready to answer questions. Have top leaders communicate internally through regular town hall meetings, Zoom meetings, pre-recorded videos, manager talking points, or even just walking through the cafeteria. 

By the way, communicating does not mean you have to take every accusation “on the chin,” but certainly continue to address the issue(s) with employees via your identified channels. Also, be sure to proactively offer appropriate updates to customers, regulators, investors, etc.

Communicate, both internally and externally:

  • What’s the latest 
  • What has changed 
  • What remains the same

Remind your leadership team not to say anything to employees that they wouldn’t say outside the company. This can be controversial, but it’s a reality. Memos leak. Video and audio can be shared. Be transparent and be prepared for what that means inside and outside the company.

4. Focus on sharing your strategy—value proposition. 

This final point is perhaps the most important aspect of any crisis management strategy: go back to the heart and soul of your company wherever possible. It’s a good idea to look at this crisis from a 360-degree angle. Remind your customers why you do what you do and emphasize that you are looking at this issue as only a blip on the radar. 

The point is not to dazzle or distract from the crisis, but to provide context about what your firm does, why, and how you remain committed to that strategy/mission. Ideally, any new processes, policies, actions are in support of continuing to advance the vision of your organization. With surgical precision, you are removing an imperfection and you will be stronger following this recovery. 

Keep this message close at hand, no matter how bleak things look. And always know that every crisis comes to an end eventually. I know that cliches sound so empty when you’re standing in the middle of the chaos and I know you’ve heard them all, but maybe you can take comfort in the words of one great American entrepreneur, Henry Ford, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” 

If you’re standing in the middle of a crisis right now, don’t go it alone. Find your tribe. Gather your advocates. And build your crisis management team. Fear might leave you feeling paralyzed at the moment, but you can trust the experts at Audacia Strategies. We’ll help you find the right crisis management strategy. Chaos is our brand, so you can bet we know how to walk through the fire. Contact us and let’s get to work!

photo by Authentic Images